The Audacity of Hopelessness

Jonathan Bachman’s iconic image from the July 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, days after police shot and killed Alton Sterling at close range, captured Ieshia Evans silently confronting heavily armed riot police. She later said she wanted her silence to convey: “I’m human. I’m a woman. I’m a mom. I’m a nurse. I could be your nurse. I could be taking care of you. You know? I’m here. We all matter. We don’t have to beg to matter. We do matter.”

I have so many thoughts and so much anguish about the horrific week just past, about the lynching of George Floyd, the latest in the seemingly never-ending assaults on black and brown bodies, and promises of more from this administration. It seems inadequate to just post something on social media, but at the same time silence in the face of innocent suffering is complicity in the act itself. It just feels numbingly like “thoughts and prayers”: a performative gesture with no real connection to systemic change. 

While Democrats condemned the latest lynching, reaction from the administration has been to pour as much jet fuel on the flames as possible. I’m not saying the Democrats’ reaction has been adequate, or that the current administration is the cause of this, but when the president gleefully tweets “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” it is clearly weaponizing these incidents and doing what it can to escalate them, presumably for what it hopes will be political gain. This is the shock and awe, the state of constant trauma that we were warned would be this administration’s MO. The chaos we are witnessing daily is a deadly combination of bad faith and ill-will. Much of it is absolutely carelessness and incompetence — scary enough — but the rest: strategic inattention to complex systems, and then weaponizing their collapse for profit — is truly terrifying.

Add to all of this the scorched-earth tactics of an election year. Brian Levin, director of the Cal State San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told the LA Times in January: “with an election season coming up, we really have to be concerned because over the last decade, the three worst months were all around politically charged events.” I have been through enough of these election cycles in my life to have seen the “political violence cycle” with my own eyes, and how it usually impacts people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk. We already know that this regime does not value all human lives equally, and that they are committed to keeping power at whatever the cost. Again, a president who tweets: “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” is encouraging political terror, whatever prevarications or excuses his handlers offer for his messaging.

It’s already a lot. And we’re not even into the real thick of it. The chaos can blind us to the patterns beneath. We are overwhelmed by evils on all fronts, and our outrage can silence us into complicity. There’s plenty of reason for despair, and that can lead those of us with privilege to withdraw. Many of us worry that we are playing a part in spreading violence by participating in a culture that relies on us to amplify it, but gives us very little in the way of solutions. There is value in witness, but when the spectacle of cruelty and violence is a tool of those in power, we become simply an audience for it. I wish I could say turning off the telly and engaging in self-care until things “get back to normal” was the answer. But “Back to Normal” is the moderate, good white people version of “Make America Great Again.” Back to normal, as we have seen, involves unrelenting systemic violence against people of color. 

When it was “revealed” that Amy Cooper was a “Buttegieg liberal,” it was no surprise to me. Blue cap. To be clear: all white Americans benefit from systemic racism. All white Americans have internalized racial privilege. They may not even realize it until it’s “activated.” As Christian Cooper suggested in several interviews, it comes out in “stressful” situations, where that privilege is questioned, even if only by the innocent presumption of equality by a person of color. Amy Cooper’s racism was reflexive. The logic of privilege is conditioned over a lifetime by systems of oppression that our unquestioned participation in makes seem organic and ineluctable. This does not mean that she, or any of us, is not responsible for participating in and perpetuating, in our millions of tiny everyday ways, this great evil. I’ll quote again, as I often do, from Marjorie Suchocki’s The Fall to Violence:

Ingrained attitudes of passive acceptance of a great social evil … is sin, and entails guilt. It is original sin, in that it is a pre-given structure of ill-being through which we view the world, inherited as the very stuff that forms the world as world. It becomes personal sin when, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so, and thus support and perpetuate the structure.

“…When, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so.” It’s very hard for “good white people” to stay focused on this, to really grasp the myriad ways we individually benefit from the systemic oppression of black and brown people. When we say that Amy Cooper “knew what she was doing,” we’re saying she knew what all white people know. Her acting on this knowledge is the flipside of our own ongoing inaction on it. As long as racism for us is little more than a “distraction,” however tragic, from other agenda items, black people will continue to be lynched in the streets; black and brown kids will continue to grow up in cages, separated, likely forever, from their parents, mostly forgotten among the multitudes of other victims of the human rights atrocities that are the human cost of our “normal”; and the powers that seek to profit from cruelty, violence and division will continue to provide content for audiences, outraged and otherwise, for their atrocities. The ratings, as our reality game show host-in-chief likes to say, are “through the roof.”

It feels like we are at war, doesn’t it? Everyday we wake up to devastating stories involving the loss of innocent lives. There’s good reason reasonable people shy away from the rhetoric of warfare, of course. We know that acts of retaliatory violence will only result in greater violence toward those who are already suffering. So, what’s the answer? We want to believe that our system of electoral politics, which we know to be flawed, if not broken, will rescue us from what that same system has wrought. We long for the “normalcy” of “before.” But we need to stop pretending that the normal we want to get back to was “at peace” just because we weren’t targeted for violence, because the systems of oppression and violence benefited us. I’ll say it again: “Back to Normal” is the blue cap version of “Make America Great Again.” 

I’ve watched as good white people have hoped against hope that someone or something would bring down this cruel, corrupt regime. Remember Robert Mueller? Now we wait, a little impatiently, a little put out, for November’s “blue wave,” urging our friends and “followers” on social media to remember to register to vote, to do the right thing! All the while dread and doubt eating at us, as we diligently follow the news, watching helplessly as those in power chip away at the transparency and fairness of our electoral system. The disbelief that any of this could really be happening is far outpaced by the fact that much of it has already been accomplished. We are like the search party, meticulously gathering clues in the dust, while the body rots in a ditch ten feet away.

Social ethicist and professor of Latinx Studies Miguel De La Torre, has written about embracing hopelessness. He is interested in “the function of hope in reinforcing oppressive structures and reining in revolutionary tendencies.” The “hopey, changey thing,” which has been a staple of the left, may, perversely, be serving an oppressive status quo. De La Torre suggests that as long as that hope exists, unchallenged, even the least of us may feel that we have something to lose, “and thus will not risk all to change the social structures. The realization that there is nothing to lose,” he says, can be the most powerful catalyst for change there is. It brings to mind the American president’s pitch to black voters in 2016: what the hell have you got to lose?” Maybe it’s time we all de-centered our hopes of returning to normal, and started fighting for the world we want as if our own lives depended on it, as if we, ourselves, have nothing to lose.

Intolerable Civility

Valentin de Boulogne, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, c.1618

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ (John 2:13-16 NIV)

I can hear it now, can’t you? “What has happened to civility?” “Couldn’t he have just asked nicely?” “Here’s this guy who hangs out with publicans and prostitutes, and all the sudden he can’t handle a few money-changers in the Temple?” “What a hypocrite!” “Yeah, where’s the tolerance?” Pretty sure that’s how this would go down on Meet the Press.  

It is probably no coincidence that the “civility movement” always seems to gain steam when the marginalized have been pushed so far they must raise a ruckus simply to be heard. But we know as well from recent events that even silent protests, like “taking a knee,” can provoke charges of incivility when the message is one that threatens privilege. As Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic last year when the immigration and family-separation crisis sparked outrage: “Civility is … wielded as a cudgel against those already facing obliteration that dictates to them how they must face it” by “a majority inclined to ignore the violence done in its name—because in the end, they will be alright.”

Like the language of civility, that of tolerance can be a kind of cudgel as well, an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Tolerance speaks even more frankly than civility of inequality in the social order. Think of the profound asymmetry of the active and passive of the verb: while we may feel pride at our ability to tolerate others, how does it feel to “be tolerated”? Tolerance remains a pillar of the political life of a secular society, but like the language of civility, it is inadequate — I would argue inappropriate even — for communities of faith and coalitions of conscience.

Whether in our own communities or in interfaith conversations, tolerance, aside from indicating entrenched (if implicit) bias, is the language of spiritual scarcity. And if you doubt this, think again of a verb in the active and passive that communicates true abundance: to love and be loved. The language of tolerance is too often used in religious settings to begrudge admittance to those whose whole humanity we are unwilling to engage with our own. It often substitutes without our even realizing it for the language of abundance that truly opens up possibilities of transformation.

The language of tolerance and civility not only glosses over the difficult work of justice and equality, of radical love and hospitality to which our transformative communities really owe their existence and to which they must continually and explicitly recommit themselves, it also makes the work itself harder to conceive. Our uncritical use of language that continually reinforces power and privilege can actually silence the language of abundance out of which flows the courage and conviction to live in abundance with one another.

Language matters. In the beginning was the Word. Relying on the language of tolerance and civility limits what we can expect from encounters across difference and makes us complicit in the world of scarcity that this language depicts. That the language and life of abundance can embrace difference, encourage us to work together through difficulty and discord, and provide us with tools to navigate conflict in the pursuit of transformation is, for me, a fundamental article of faith. In fact, it may be what faith itself is for.

Happy Valentine’s Day?

It being Valentine week, I thought I’d look into the human and environmental cost of the popular romantic holiday! Spoiler alert: this is kind of a “Mike Ruins Everything” post.

Depending on whom you ask, Americans spend between $18-20b on V-Day flowers, chocolates, plushies and foil or “mylar” balloons to prove their affection. Obviously all of these have environmental and human costs.

We’ll start with balloons and plushies. Latex balloons can take up to four years to biodegrade (don’t get me started on mylars, which are “metalicized polyester” and not classified as biodegradable) but it is their release into the environment that wreaks havoc on wildlife (if you need a good cry, check out the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s blog post on the subject, but be warned, there are pictures. )

Those cute little plushies are problematic, too, at every stage of their production. Most are made of materials derived from petrochemicals, some containing heavy metals like lead and cadmium. The manufacturing process “can result in harmful wastewater and other types of pollution”, and the toy industry has long been known to employ child labor.

Americans consume 58 million lbs of chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Most of the cocoa comes from West Africa, where, because 1 cocoa tree produces only about half a pound of chocolate a year, and global demand is so high, tropical forests are often clearcut to make way for this cash crop. Child labor is another ongoing reality of chocolate production, with an estimated 2+ million West African children involved in harvesting cocoa.

And those Valentine’s Day roses? Around 2/3 of them come from Colombia, where labor laws (including, again, child labor laws) and environmental regulations are lax. One study found that floriculture workers (2:1 female to male) “were exposed to 127 different types of pesticides. The female workers as well as the female partners of male workers experienced an “increase in the prevalence of abortion, prematurity, and congenital malformations … for pregnancies occurring after the start of work in floriculture.” This is particularly horrifying, given the product and its intended purpose and message.

The good news is there are plenty of sustainable ways to celebrate Valentine’s day! Because, honestly, loving someone to the end of the earth doesn’t need to be a literal thing.

Travelers on Church Street

Keleti Station, Budapest.

I work as the Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Unitarian Universalist on Church Street just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and one of my jobs is to educate the Congregation on issues of housing and food insecurity in our neighborhood and beyond. I wrote the following for our monthly newsletter after having been asked by several congregants how to approach individuals they assume to be homeless in the neighborhood. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was a young teacher in a little village in Eastern Hungary in the mid-’90s was to take the train 25 miles East to the Provincial Capital, Debrecen, near the Romanian border. It was a beautiful city, to be sure, but it was that hour traveling by train across the plains of Pannonia, the great Hungarian Puszta, that was the real attraction for me. The landscape, “flat as an ocean,” in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s words, reminded me of my Indiana home, and being a stranger among strangers on the old no-frills Soviet-era intercity train was oddly calming. Whenever I was homesick I could ride my janky old bicycle (provided at no cost by the local gimnázium) to the station, hop on a train, and I suddenly felt right at home amongst the rabble.

It’s good to be at home among strangers, and despite growing up in suburbia, where the appearance of a stranger is often cause for suspicion if not outright alarm, I think it’s in my blood. I recently became mildly obsessed with, and what struck me after doing a little research was the staggering scope of global displacement over the last several generations. Take my great-grandparents, who, like so many of their compatriots fleeing the grinding rural poverty of their Southern Italian home, arrived in New York around 1900 in what’s known as The Great Arrival. But while “L’America” was a land of opportunity, the story my genealogy tells of the century that followed was one of even greater fragmentation and displacement, with two World Wars and the Great Depression, and a relentless push West that saw relatives scattered from New York and Pennsylvania to Indiana, Texas and California. Growing up I hardly knew my relatives on my father’s side at all. I met my grandfather once. We’ve been in this country for 120 years.

First Parish Cambridge has been here much longer, of course. Many of its current congregants can no doubt trace their lineage back 400 years as well. One thing I’ve learned in my own short time in New England: folks take enormous pride in being of a place. I do it, too. Each September when the next freshman class floods in from parts unknown, despite only having lived here a mere 15 years, I’m suddenly a native. We often draw the arbitrary line of belonging to a place from the moment we arrived, whether it’s the queue for our morning coffee or Plymouth Rock. We take great, sometimes comical umbrage at strangers and newcomers, puffing our chests as if to say: “we were here first!” And when it comes to the line at Starbucks: yeah, ok, fair enough. But when we telescope out a bit, things get a little more complicated. Here isn’t always here. Take First Parish. In our first 200 years the Congregation moved five times (not to mention the much greater trek from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism that accompanied all those moves.)

We are a people on the move, a species of travelers from the beginning, for whom “home” is a fairly recent adaptation. The first shelters may have been built as long ago as 400,000 years, but the first proto-houses did not appear until just 15,000 years ago, give or take. We would do well to keep that in mind when we think about homelessness. Like “displacement,” “homelessness” is a word that hides its privilege in plain sight. We rarely dig too deeply into the root — “home,” “place,” even less so “placement” — when we think of those who are homeless or displaced. We sometimes lament that they (and they are always a “they”) have had to leave their homes, but we invariably conceive of “home” as the place they are from, not the place they are in. It is a way of reinforcing that they are “out of place” here and now. The fact that many have had to leave the place they are from doesn’t mean that they need to feel or be treated as out of place where they are. We sometimes assume that those we encounter on our streets have nowhere to be without considering how it is that we have found our place here, on the same street where they are. They are here, we sometimes seem to be saying, in the place where we belong!

But home is not just an ephemeral and transient idea for them, as much as our own good fortune in having found a place for the moment might suggest to us. I say this as a renter in Boston who has been forced to move eight times in the past 13 years. And that’s stable compared to friends earning the minimum wage. In Cambridge today they’d have to work 145 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rent. If we zoom out to the even bigger picture, we are in the middle of an epoch of global displacement, fueled by radical income inequality and unstoppable climate change. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that rising sea levels will, by the end of the century, cause a third of the homes in Cambridge to face flooding every other week.  A third of Cambridge underwater. (It seems likely this will only exacerbate the housing crunch.)

We have one home, not many. That much is obvious. It can be hard to remember that in moments of encounter with those who seem out of place to us in the here and now. When I forget, myself, I like to hop on the train. It doesn’t really matter where to. It’s just good to be at home among my fellow travelers.


“Get thee to a diverse community of scholars committed to social justice on a global scale!”

OK, the countdown has begun in earnest! In a mere two weeks I’ll start classes at Boston University’s School of Theology.

While I’ve done a lot of “discernment” around this myself, I realized recently that this is a confusing concept for some in my wider circle. Just yesterday I had someone tell me with an incredulous chuckle he’d heard I was “joining a seminary.”

The picture he had was, let’s say: Rabelaisian. Maybe if it were the 15th Century, but with everything going on right now in the Catholic Church I don’t want people to get this twisted. It’s not that.

Nor is this a “get thee to a nunnery” scenario.

I haven’t renounced my… well, anything, really. (Except the eight or nine grand I’m paying in tuition and insurance per academic year and any chance of an off-campus social life for the foreseeable future.)

So. Real talk: 

I chose BU because they gave me a reasonable package and the Global & Community Engagement track offers a number of useful courses and certificates in awesome stuff like Nonprofit Management and opportunities for study abroad as part of my three-year degree. This track offers training in interfaith dialogue and conflict transformation in ecumenical settings, to be sure, but it also offers more broadly applicable work in social and economic justice and nonprofit leadership.

Having worked in higher ed administration and nonprofits and not really finding a happy or stable niche in either, my career sort of took a turn a few years back into areas of social and economic justice, working pretty intensively with food and housing insecurity in a number of contexts, from leading an organization dedicated to urban agriculture to mentoring youth in transitional housing.

One organization I currently work for around these issues is a Community Mental Health Center, the other is a Unitarian Universalist Church. Both gigs put me in touch with extraordinary people from all walks of life who are committed to making their communities more inclusive, more responsive, and more just. (I know it sounds hokey, but there really are incredibly smart people out there doing this work, trust me!)

Anyway, I knew I wanted to go on to get another degree that could help me get better situated to do the organizational work I wanted to do. I didn’t want something as limiting as an MSW or as wonky as an MPA, though either of these could easily have been a next step, careerwise. 

What I did want was a program that had a built-in community component. I had dated a guy for a couple years who was getting his MBA from Harvard and what struck me about his program was how much of it was really geared toward creating a sustainable network of relationships. It struck me that there are Masters programs that are geared almost exclusively toward professional certification, and then there are those, like MBAs and MDivs (as strange as it might seem to compare them), that have this community element that’s so essential to their true purpose and lasting value.

At no point was I required by Admissions to have or state a religious affiliation, which is awesome, because I don’t really have one, and the students I met there when visiting the program were from an extraordinary array of religious (and non-religious) backgrounds. There was not a lot of talk at the community lunch I attended about metaphysics and dogma. I’m sure it goes on, but everyone I spoke to seemed much more concerned with the logistics of making the world a better place. And that’s the kind of community I need right now.  

It all made perfect sense at the time, anyway.

I’ll let you know how I feel about it when I’m cramming for my Hebrew Bible final in a couple months.